Wednesday 14 December 2011

Why Pascal's wager failed for me


The Pensees by Blaise Pascal seem to me much the best book about Christianity I have read; although it is hard to believe that I only encountered them in August 2010, so they have not had a chance to withstand the test of time for me.

I first heard of Pascal's Pensees some decades ago in reference to the 'wager' concerning the reality or existence of God; and knowing only this was enough to put me off reading the rest.


Because the 'wager' does not work under modern conditions, for people like me - modern society pre-immunizes us against any such arguments.

Perhaps mostly due to the fact that modern man is trained to believe that the concept of the soul is meaningless and there is permanent extinction of consciousness at death - therefore Pascal's wager works in the opposite direction from intended.

The 'safe' option of belief for moderns is therefore selfish, short-termist hedonism - on the basis that moderns only 'know' whether they are happy now and everything else is conjecture.

So Pascal's wager seems to suggest that it is 'foolish' to do anything other than optimize the current, here and now, state of well-being.


And because the wager does not work (stands no chance of working), or works in reverse; the fact that the wager is nowadays always linked with Pascal's Pensees serves to neutralize the whole book.

Which is useful for the powers of darkness if, as it seems to me, Pascal's Pensees is the single most important book of the truth of Christianity for modern people. 



Wm Jas said...

I also put off reading Pascal for a long time because I knew him only by his "wager" and was not impressed. In case the same is true of others, let me say that, despite the regrettable wager (and even some aspects of that are salvageable), Pensees is a singularly powerful and thought-provoking book which most everyone ought to read.

Letting the wager put you off reading Pascal would be like giving Shakespeare a miss because you've heard of his painfully unfunny clown scenes.

(But, lest Bruce start getting used to these positive comments, let me also say that the wager does not work because it is a bad argument. No pre-immunization by modernity is required in order to see that.)

Penda said...

Related to Pascal, I want to thank you for mentioning Kreeft's book on Pascal. I'm reading through it and it's very strong.

The window of liberal Christianity is rapidly closing, I think. Perhaps that statement is colored by my youth and upbringing in a very secular culture, but for me and I believe much of my generation, there seems to be no point in liberal Christianity.

It's still hard for me to understand what the purpose of the exercise of liberal Christianity is for older thinkers, or the numerically large remnants in liberal churches. For example, trudging through Barth, or Kung.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Penda - I don't think I ever blogged on my close encounter with (extreme) Liberal Christianity in the mid 1980s.

I read Kung, and most of Don Cupitt, and people like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and quite a few articles and books by Dominicans, a book about Roman Catholicism by Roderick Strange, various things on monasticism...

I think I went to some church services (mostly Evensong; but not mass/ Holy Communion, because I was not confirmed), I prayed for while too - and found myself unmoved.

As you say, Liberal Christianity (no miracles, Jesus as proto-socialist moral teacher etc) didn't add anything to secular Leftism - and was indeed explicitly a kind of attempted self-delusion, that unsurprisingly did not work.